A look at cultural evolution by futurist, Sohail Inayatullah

by Sohail Inayatullah 

Where are we going, and how?

Will we evolve further through competitive biological evolution or cultural memetic evolution? Or does our image of a desired future pull us forward?

Materialistic theories of evolution explain change through competition. Traits that help us in evolution are likely to survive and thrive. No external force guides evolution.

In contrast are theistic theories of evolution. Hegel, for example, says human social evolution proceeds by the actions of the geist, or spirit. God intervenes in history. Classical Vedic philosophy as well saw the advent of the avatar when reality became too painful for the masses. Evolution--social and political but not biological--was speeded up by an external source.

In contrast, for Sarkar evolution proceeds through interaction with the environment, what he calls struggle with the environment. However, evolution also occurs through interaction and struggle with ideas. This is similar to a recent hypothesis that memes are as important as genes. Memes are ideas, behaviors, styles that survive by being passed on through usage. The fittest, most used, survive. Other ideas--allegedly those that have little fact basis--die. Memes explain why music, for example, or chess, and art, survive and thrive even though there is no biological need for them.

But there is a third dimension to Sarkar’s theory: human evolution proceeds by desire. Species, to some extent, can will themselves to alter their evolutionary structure. Of course this does not happen overnight but takes time.

And, according to Sarkar, the desired change does not always occur.
Human evolution, thus, is not haphazard or random. There is will, albeit unconscious, involved. Thus the image of the future, what a collectivity desires to be like, can pull evolution along. This fits well into Fred Polak’s hypothesis that civilizations rise and fall partly based on their image of the future. If the image is optimistic and the people believe that humans can change or at least influence the future, they can move forward. Pessimistic visions--with an accompanying belief that humans can do very little--lead to dire consequences.

For Sarkar, and others who take a psycho-spiritual view to evolution, the image is one factor, a crucial factor. But he calls it the attraction to the Great. By Great, he means cosmic consciousness, spiritual consciousness. It is a desire for spiritual beauty.
However, the vehicle for evolution are microvita. For Sarkar, microvita are entities that exist between conception (mental realities) and perception (physical realities). In their crudest forms, they are viruses.

Microvita are subtle, so far not measurable (and thus their existence scientifically problematic) with our physical instruments, but when we can identify them more accurately, we will be able to explain such things as the placebo effect, and differences in the taste of water and food (holding other variables constant). Along with other factors--diet, social inclusion, genes, exercise--they will help explain the causes and cures of numerous diseases.

At a simple level, microvita are good and bad energy: intuitive feelings that more sensitive individuals experience as energy. They may be the cause why we feel better at certain places, or experience a sense of well-being suddenly.

Practically this means that it may be possible to guide our own human evolution. However, Sarkar argues that as microvita are subtle, it takes spiritual elevation to experience and direct microvita. Simply put, this is the image of Tibetan monks chanting so that they can influence humanity. More scientifically this is the Field Effect, championed by Rupert Sheldrake and others. Done over and over, positive microvita can transform conditions: reducing violence, creating social health.

While there is some (conclusive for meditation and health but not so for spiritual practices and social well-being) empirical evidence for this, at heart, however, is a perspective of the universe wherein there is more to reality than the physical plan. There is a psychic dimension to reality that is far deeper. And deepest still is the spiritual, which is outside our knowing efforts. Thus, it is a paradigm shift that is necessary to move from Newtonian to Einsteinian to Microvita science. Macro-historian Pitirim Sorokin sees this as a move from sensate civilization (where reality is defined by experience) to an ideational civilization, as in the Middle Ages, where only issues of mind are important, where the pendulum swings too far to theology. But there is a third possibility--an integral civilization, where there is balance between body and mind, matter and idea. Clearly we are still at least a century away from this, but we can begin to discuss what this future might look like.

To begin with, if evolution is psychic, then it is important to develop and articulate shared collective goals for humanity. What do we want? What is most important? This must be done not only at the rational planning level but at the myth level, an excavation of our deepest fears and hopes.

While Sarkar is a spiritualist, he is balanced. Image is one thing but there remains physical and intellectual struggle. Imagining a future must go along with concrete changes to how the weak are treated, to economic distribution. As well, ideas are to be directed toward a global ethics, instead of merely toward what he calls intellectual extravaganza, perhaps referring to post-modernity.
What worlds then are we imagining and creating?

Sohail Inayatullah is visiting professor at Tamkang University, Taiwan. Forthcoming this year is a new book on Sarkar (Leiden, Brill, 2001). He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Web: www.metafuture.org

This article was printed in New Renaissance, Volume 10, Number 2, Issue 33 (Spring, 2001)